By Jacqueline Ledoux
Catherine carefully arranged the coffee, French jam, bread, chocolate truffles, triple-berry cheesecake and dessert plates on the serving tray. She momentarily glanced around the kitchen to see if she had forgotten anything. The hostess was always very meticulous when serving her guests. For herself and the family, she would have been satisfied with some bread and butter. When company came, however, she wanted to impress them, accumulating quite an expense in the process. Some would call this hypocrisy; others would call it good manners.
Nevertheless, Catherine continued to engage in this habit, much to the chagrin of her husband, who lamented his half-empty wallet after each company’s visit. Failing to see a purpose for such extravagance, but eager to see his guests be comfortable, he allowed this practice to continue, making up for the lost sums by working extra hours.
Satisfied that nothing was missing in her brunch arrangement, Catherine slowly carried it into the dining room. Nancy, the next-door neighbor, was sitting on the couch with a disappointed expression on her face.
“What’s the matter, Nancy?” she inquired.
The woman was silent for a moment, holding Catherine’s fancy blue dress in her hands, twisting the fabric. After some hesitation, she loudly exclaimed:
The dress owner placed the serving tray onto the table and took the garment away from her guest, not wishing it to wrinkle.
“I’m sorry, Nancy. You’ll have to borrow a dress from someone else for the gala this year.”
Catherine did not mind letting her neighbor borrow the dress. In fact, the two women had been friends for over four years. Their children often played together. (Nancy was unsure if her son came because he liked the company or because of all the sweet treats he would be getting.) This time, the mothers decided to indulge in the comfort of seclusion by leaving the offspring at their respective grandparents’ homes.
The dress was clearly an important subject for Nancy, and she would not let it go so easily. She begrudgingly inquired:
“Did you wear it?”
“No… I don’t remember.”
“How is that possible? You would have remembered.”
“I just don’t… But then again, it is my dre – ”
“This was such a beautiful dress… What else could have gone wrong?”
Then she added:
“Did you wash it since I last borrowed it?”
“Then how could it shrink?”
Catherine remained silent. She was a little irritated, now, at her friend’s behavior. To change the subject, she contemplated letting Nancy borrow her other dress, the purple one with the embroidery. She opened her mouth to express the idea, but proposed this instead:
“Are you sure you have nothing of your own to wear?”
“No. You know that.”
“Well, I wish you’d let me come and see. I know a very good seamstress, perhaps she can make you something from what you already have.”
“No, no, no. You don’t understand. I’ve dealt with seamstresses. When something is self-made, you can see it. I won’t risk it. The gala is too important.”
“But you don’t even know anyone there. You just stand around the buffet table, smiling at everyone, and then leave.”
“Ah, Catherine! You don’t understand reputation. The fact that I am there – and that someone might see me – might give be better perspectives for the future.”
Catherine laughed aloud.
“What future? Would you trade the life that you and Peter have – ”
“Peter? Don’t talk to me about him. You know what he got me for my birthday last month? A silver necklace!”
“You know Peter’s been out of a job. I’m sure he would have loved to give you something else.”
“I’m sure he only claims not to find a job. Other people have them.”
Catherine thought how interesting it was that Nancy did not consider herself to be a part of the “other people.”
The unemployed guest helped herself to a large piece of cheesecake, brightened up, and decided to change the subject.
“Anyway, how have you been?”
“Good. Clara is begging to read now. Anthony has a lot of work. He comes home exhausted all the time. The other night, he had to go to a meeting with Robert Bu – ”
“Robert? Robert Burrows? From the watch company?”
“Yes. Can you imagine? Three hours of negotiations! They’ve been doing this contract deal and Burrows always wants to change something. Yesterday, he tells Anthony to –”
“I didn’t know you were friends with the Burrows.”
“We’re not friends. Anthony is trying to get a contract done, and – ”
“You don’t seem very happy to know people in such high places. If I – ”
“See, it doesn’t matter. Burrows is at the point in his life where he doesn’t see past profit. Money. That’s all that matters to him. Anthony’s been trying to talk some common sense into this guy –”
“Why don’t you let me talk to him? I’ll see what I can do.”
“Nancy, let it go. You and Peter have a great family. Yes, money is tight, but it means so little. Who is comparing, anyway?”
“The public, Catherine. If we’re not the ones comparing, you can be sure that someone else is. Trust me, what they think is not half as pleasant as what they say,” she slammed her cup onto the tray for emphasis.
Catherine silently hoped that the china was still intact.
“No reason to do that,” she said quietly, and then returned to the discussion: “Is that what’s keeping you up at night? What some stranger thinks about your family?”
“You barely notice anything. People watch. On the street, in the store, everywhere. If you don’t put on a show, you’ll sink in their eyes, and then, then…”
The societal entrepreneur did not finish her thought. She was appalled at the hostess’ ignorance of such important details.
“I don’t think so, Nancy. What makes my world so different from yours? We live in the same apartment building. We see the same people. Everyone’s always running about their own business.”
“That’s what you think. And no, we don’t live in the same world. Peter wasn’t in a meeting with Burrows yesterday.”
“If I knew that’s how you would react, I wouldn’t have said anything.”
“Too late now.”
“Everyone has their own problems, Nancy. You can’t assume that yours are the biggest. Some people would be fortunate to have what you’ve got.”
“Your problems are clearly bigger. Poor Anthony. Tired of the meetings. It’s so difficult to drink champagne and eat imported fish.”
“What fish? What champagne? What are you talking about?”
“You know what your problem is, Catherine? You like to rub things in. Instead of seeing that I was clearly uncomfortable with the topic, you kept on talking.”
“I didn’t know that you took it that way. I’m sorry.”
“Yes,” Nancy replied cynically, getting up.
Catherine tried to reconcile the situation, but her efforts were in vain. In her mind, Nancy was already settled on the fact that her neighbor was a part of the uncaring rich class that she so clearly despised, but so secretly loved.
The neighbors parted. Catherine wished her good evening and closed the door.
Then, she returned to the table and began cleaning up the dishes, wondering what went wrong.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student